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Top Books by State: Tennessee

By Adrienne Rivera. Apr 21, 2024. 6:15 AM.

Topics: Pulitzer Prize, American Literature

Tennessee is a beautiful southern state with a rich history. Besides being home to beautiful forests and mountains, such as in the Appalachian and Cumberland Mountains, Tennessee boasts two of American music’s most important cities: Nashville for country music and Memphis for the blues. Today, we continue our Top Books by State series by looking at three of the best books set in Tennessee. Set in a variety of locations and periods, these books showcase the beauty of the Tennessee landscape:

A Death in the Family by James Agee


ADeathintheFamily1stEdJournalist and film critic James Agee’s semi-autobiographical Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family, depicts a boy and his family trying to put themselves back together after the death of their father. Published in 1957, the book is a heartfelt and crushing portrait of grief in 1930’s Knoxville, Tennessee. The following passages depict the town and its surrounding areas:

We are talking now about summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee when I lived there and successfully disguised myself as a child.


He always felt different once he was across the river. This was the real, old, deep country now—home country. The cabins looked different to him, a little older and poorer and simpler, a little more homelike; the trees and rocks seemed to come differently out of the ground; the air smelled different.


Little houses, bigger ones, scrolled and spacious porches, dark windows, leaves of trees already rich with May, homes of rooms which chambered sleep as honey is cherished, drifted past their slow walking and were left behind, and not a light in any home.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

2012’s Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is set in Appalachia and follows a small mountain community after a local woman, Dellarobia, discovers a field full of thousands of monarch butterflies. What she perceives as a miracle, scientists converge on the town to study as a marker of climate change. Beautiful descriptions of the mountain landscape appear throughout:

On the hill behind her, crows flew one by one into the bare trees, arranging their dark blots in the scrim of branches and adding their warnings to the drear sounds of this day. Gone, gone, they rasped. Here was a dead world learning to speak in dissonant, unbearable sounds.


The tree was intact, not cut or broken by wind. What a waste. After maybe centuries of survival, it had simply let go of the ground, the wide fist of its root mass ripped up and resting naked above a clay gash in the wooded mountainside. Like herself, it seemed to have come loose from its station in life.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

The_Orchard_Keeper_-_Cormac_McCarthyCormac McCarthy’s 1965 novel The Orchard Keeper tells the story of the relationship that develops between a bootlegger and the boy whose father, unbeknownst to either of them, the bootlegger killed. Set in rural Red Branch, Tennessee, The Orchard Keeper describes a beautiful wilderness slowly encroached upon by violence and modern civilization. McCarthy details the beauty and solitude of the Tennessee forest in numerous passages throughout the novel:

A warm wind on the mountain and the sky darkening, the clouds looping black underbellies until a huge ulcer folded out of the mass and a crack like the earth’s core rending rattled panes from Winkle Hollow to Bay’s Mountain. And the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth’s turning, and then that too ceased and with a clatter and hiss out of the still air, a plague of ice


Light pale as milk guided the old man’s steps over the field to the creek and then to the mountain, stepping into the black wall of pineshadows and climbing up the lower slopes out into the hardwoods, bearded hickories trailing grapevines, oaks and crooked waterless cottonwoods, a quarter mile from the creek now, past the white chopped butt of a bee tree lately felled, past the little hooked Indian tree and passing silent and catlike up the mountain in the darkness under latticed leaves scudding against the sky in some small wind. Light saw him through the thick summer ivy and over windfalls and limestone. Past the sink where on a high bluff among trilobites and fishbones, shells of ossified crustaceans from an ancient sea, a great stone tusk jutted.


Stay tuned! Next time, we'll take a look at some of the amazing books that come from the great state of Texas!

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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